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Hungary Reconstituted

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In the sorry past of the country, Hungary endured without a written constitution, just like the United Kingdom. Fortunately, the “light”  arrived from the East, and Hungary received its first written constitution from the Soviet Union in 1949. Under this document, Hungary would enjoy one of the harshest totalitarian regimes in the region during the first part of the 1950s.

When the Soviet experiment collapsed like a wet sock, jurists from Hungary’s opposition parties joined members of the ruling Socialist Party and re-wrote the constitution, heavily amending it. It was adopted in 1989 by the last Socialist Parliament. Sooner or later, it was thought, a new, definitive constitution would need to be created, but neither political party was yet up to the task. Hungary then had the distinction of being the sole former Eastern bloc nation that did not adopt a wholly new constitution after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The country’s 2010 elections changed things. With the victory of the center-right coalition of the Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union (Hungarian: Magyar Polgári Szövetség) and the Christian Democrats (Keresztény Demokrata Néppárt), conservatives gained a huge majority in parliament. They immediately started to draft a new constitution to replace what many saw as the last remnant of the country’s socialist past.

The first step was taken on September 7, 2010, when an ad hoc parliamentary committee started to make preparations. After numerous debates about matters of principles, the early drafts of the new Hungarian constitution were written between January and March of 2011. It was finally adopted by the Hungarian parliament and signed into law by President Pál Schmitt on April 25, 2011.

Controversy ensued almost immediately. The storm around the “Easter constitution”—so called because it was passed on Easter Monday and because for its supporters it represents the resurrection of traditional values—followed two paths of argument. One of them involves the legislative process. The constitution’s critics say that its drafting, preparation, and adoption didn’t involve all political parties; that there was no widespread civic debate about it; and, finally, that no public referendum was held. Of course, many of these elements were absent in the case of the country’s previous constitutions, as well as those of many other countries.

The other argument focuses on the constitution’s content. Practically speaking, the Easter constitution changed the political framework of the country only slightly. Hungary is still a republic, and the roles of the president, parliament, and the country’s other important political institutions didn’t change much. But opponents of the Easter constitution assert that it has transformed the politico-cultural context of Hungarian life in the long run. Critics focus their fire almost exclusively on the new constitution’s preamble.

The politico-cultural foundation of the constitution, as enshrined in its preamble, can be summarized by three words: God, homeland, and family.

The preamble starts with a reference to the first line of Hungary’s old national anthem, which asks God to bless the Hungarian people. Although the constitution itself clearly embodies the principle of separation of church and state, it also refers to their cooperation. And despite recognizing the country’s various religious traditions, it explicitly mentions the Christian roots of Europe, as well as the role of Christianity in the history of the Hungarian nation.

It is interesting to note that there were no serious attacks on these points from non-Christian religious groups in Hungary; it was mainly atheist intellectuals who attacked these religious elements.

Another frequent target of critics is the Easter constitution’s defense of what we may call the traditional family. The new constitution says that a marriage is solely a union of a man and a woman, and furthermore, that Hungary protects the family as the basis of the nation. This clause has been condemned by left-wing groups in Hungary and across Europe as being insufficiently broad for failing to include same-sex marriages.

For them, the other extremely problematic element in the new constitution has to do with the dignity of human life. By talking about the inviolability of human dignity and the protection of the fetus from the moment of conception, the Easter constitution doesn’t explicitly prohibit the right to abortion, as its critics assert. But it does open the gates for anti-abortion legislation to be introduced in parliament—or at least some limitations on government-funded abortion on demand.

After 1956, under the Socialist regime headed by János Kádár until 1988, abortions were funded by the government’s social-health agency. And today there is a widespread culture of abortion in Hungary. In fact, the number of abortions is close to the number of births.

In such a climate, even a modest antiabortion campaign or pro-life argument can provoke a scandal. Despite what the alarmist pro-abortion opponents of the Easter constitution say, at present there is no legislative initiative in Hungary to change or repeal the abortion laws.

Nevertheless, the Easter constitution certainly does give abortion foes a chance to change the laws—and the culture—in the future.

The last controversial element in the constitution is the issue of nationhood. A foreign observer should know that Hungarian political life is rather historically conditioned. This means that despite the prevalence of familiar pragmatic or ideological issues in the country’s political debates—such as the role of the market and state, questions of human rights, and so forth—the main dividing lines are not those that are well-known in Western Europe. Rather, Hungarian political life is seen only in relation to religious tradition and in the context of an interpretation of Hungary’s past—mainly that of the 20th century.

The constitution, for example, proudly mentions Saint Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian state and the first King of Hungary (1000-1038). It also makes explicit reference to other great forebears of the country, and makes note of the intellectual and spiritual unity of the nation, which is the patrimony of every Hungarian citizen, and which was torn apart by the ideological movements and international conflicts of the 20th century. This language has been interpreted by critics of the constitution as a hidden and dangerous re-evaluation of the Trianon (1920) and Paris (1947) treaties, which defined the country’s borders and subtly chipped away at Hungarian unity.

Thus, because it is rooted in the country’s traditions and is critical of international treaties, the Easter constitution has been accused of being a threat to the European status quo. For critics, advancing this accusation is important so that the entire debate may be exported to international forums—and Hungary can be placed in the crosshairs of the international community.

The constitution condemns the crimes committed under both the National Socialist and Communist dictatorships, and it further specifies the date of Nazi occupation as the day on which the country lost its liberty. The first statement here makes it impossible to consider the Communist regime as any different from the Nazi one and clearly points to the interwoven political, economic, and intellectual frameworks that Hungary has been trying to shed during the post-Socialist period. Of course, linking the Socialists to the Nazis in this way is rather unpleasant for Europe’s socialist family, but doing so is not unprecedented, especially in light of the scholarly work of Hannah Arendt in The Origins of Totalitarianism.

Within the country there is a historical-political debate taking place about how to interpret the Soviet invasion of Hungary in 1945. The right in Hungary calls it occupation, but the left sees it as liberation. In the eyes of the left, the period between of 1945 and 1948 was the “honeymoon of democracy” created by the Red Army.

According to the Hungarian left, there is a fine Socialist tradition in the country after 1945, while the pre-Socialist past is all rubbish. But the new constitution implicitly re-evaluates the country’s Socialist era in contrast to its pre-Socialist past—and finds the former wanting.

Finally, the very end of the constitution’s preamble speaks about the abiding need for spiritual and intellectual renewal in Hungary—something that members of the Vanenburg Society, an organization of traditionalist conservative intellectuals, have been discussing avidly in the context of Europe since 2006.

Hungary’s Easter constitution entered into force on the first of January. It has garnered both sympathetic interest and more than a few attacks from abroad. Many Hungarian critics have notably received support from left-wing organizations in other countries.

Why do the constitution’s critics need this help? In the 20th-century history of Hungary, there is a separation between political groups styled as “progressives” and “reactionaries.” (Never mind that this latter set has included those who were classical liberals at the beginning of the last century.) The former group has consistently preferred to present itself as the only agent of progress against local backwardness. This is a crude misrepresentation.

The progressives who have been attempting to redefine the political spectrum in Hungary, and who have continually attacked the Easter constitution, have historically only been able to get and maintain political control with the help of foreign powers: this is true whether we speak of 1945 or 1918. In the same way that so-called progressive forces within Hungary facilitated the Communist takeover in 1945, for example, with the complicity of international organizations and foreign powers, so today the opponents of Hungary’s attempt to rediscover and re-embody its historical traditions in the Easter constitution are joining forces with the self-proclaimed agents of progress across Europe, especially those in the administrative and bureaucratic structures of the European Union.

In their political imagination, Hungary’s difficulties—political, economic, or cultural—are always the result of backwardness and the tradition-bound Hungarian who should be forced to modernize. Thus, there is no compromise with local tradition: it and its supporters need only be eliminated to make way for progress.

A.K. Molnar is a Hungarian academic and author of several books.

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